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Jockeying to Join the Chase

Most of the drivers who still have a chance to make NASCAR's version of a playoff are looking for an edge today at Fontana.

September 03, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

At a NASCAR race in Phoenix last spring, Tony Stewart charged to the front after starting last in a field of 43. Asked how he managed the feat, the typically sarcastic Stewart deadpanned: "Well, I started by passing the car in front of me, then I passed the next car in front of me, then I .... "

On its face, racing is that simple. But when it comes to the Chase for the Nextel Cup, which is nearing fever pitch in Southern California this weekend, it's a lot more complicated.

The chase, NASCAR's version of a postseason playoff, allows only the top 10 drivers in points after 26 races to compete for the series championship during the last 10 races of the schedule.

Tonight's Sony HD 500 at California Speedway in Fontana is the 25th race, and most of the 13 drivers who still have a chance to make the chase are hoping they finish well enough tonight, as well as next week at Richmond, Va., to keep their title hopes alive.

Only points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Matt Kenseth have mathematically clinched spots in the chase, and third-place Kevin Harvick is considered safe.

Conversely, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards -- 12th and 13th in points, respectively -- are thought to have virtually no chance to qualify.

That means most of the pressure is on the drivers who are fourth through 11th in points, which include some of NASCAR's biggest stars: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne -- who's 11th -- and Stewart, the defending Cup champion.

There are only 138 points separating fourth-place Kyle Busch from Kahne, yet a driver can gain up to 156 points over any of his rivals in a race.

The result: NASCAR calculated that there are 574,560 ways the points standings could shift among the top 11 spots after tonight's race, which starts at 5 and ends under the lights at the two-mile, D-shaped speedway that's about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the only certainty is that it's again expected to be hot and breezy when the green flag falls, with temperatures in the 90s.

Regardless of what the calculators say, some drivers such as Stewart are taking a stoic approach to tonight's race, saying they simply race to win and let the points fall where they may.

"It means the same thing it did the first time I was asked," Stewart said after qualifying Friday. "We're doing the best we can and hopefully it's going to be good enough."

Stewart, eighth in the points, will start 22nd in his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. He does not want a repeat of the February race at Fontana, when he finished last because of engine failure.

But others, such as Earnhardt, acknowledged that they're watching the scoreboard.

"You definitely count points and figure out where everybody is and how people are running," said Earnhardt, who starts sixth tonight in his No. 8 Chevy and is ninth in points. "You pay a lot of attention to the others in contention, and I have for the last five or six weeks."

If there is one driver who might have a key role in deciding how the chase evolves after tonight, it might be Martin.

The veteran is clinging to 10th place in chase qualifying, 90 points ahead of Kahne. But Martin and his Ford team, Roush Racing, have a strong record at California Speedway. In 12 appearances, Martin has six top-10 finishes and he won here in 1998.

Martin was one of the fastest in practice Saturday and said he should make the chase "if we don't have any more trouble, but it's real close." He was referring to a botched pit stop a week ago at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee that saddled him with a 28th-place finish.

"We went from fourth to 10th [in points] last week and if we don't have any trouble this week, we should be better than 10th when it's over with," he said.

Kenseth, his Roush teammate, won the February race in Fontana this year, a race dominated by Biffle, another Roush driver, until he suffered engine failure late in the race.

Kenseth is hot lately, having won the last two Cup races at Bristol and Michigan International Speedway.

"I'd be surprised if we were not competitive [tonight], but it's still tough to win these things," Kenseth said. "You've got to have everything go right."

For those drivers already out of the chase, tonight is a chance to at least put an exclamation mark on their season and start preparing for 2007.

They include pole-sitter Kurt Busch, the Penske Racing South driver who's 14th in the points. "Just trying to get the car back in victory lane is the ultimate goal in these next 12 races," he said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Chase

NASCAR points leaders (top 10 after Sept. 9 race in Richmond, Va., qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup):

*--* Driver Pts Behind 1. Jimmie Johnson 3,499 2. Matt Kenseth 3,492 -7 3. Kevin Harvick 3,178 -321 4. Kyle Busch 3,097 -402 5. Jeff Gordon 3,091 -408 6. Denny Hamlin 3,070 -429 7. Jeff Burton 3,064 -435 8. Tony Stewart 3,056 -443 9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,051 -448 10. Mark Martin 3,049 -450 11. Kasey Kahne 2,959 -540

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Source: NASCAR

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